By Don Simpson | August 10, 2013
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
To be perfectly honest, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is one of those films that is best experienced with no preconceptions or expectations. It is a totally necessary film that despite its chillingly disturbing subject matter offers a very unique perspective of unabashed evil. Just as the perpetually discomforting The Act of Killing will forever hold a sacred place in the history of non-fiction cinema, the film will certainly rattle around within your subconscious for an eternity. If this film does not incite a bevy of emotions within your soul, you must be as frigidly immoral as the central character — and yes, he is quite a character — Anwar Congo.
While Congo’s name is known — and feared — throughout Indonesia, most non-Indonesians will have no idea who he is. Congo is one of several men who led the Indonesian death squads, brutally torturing and killing communists and ethnic Chinese in the wake of the military overthrow of President Sukarno in 1965. Almost a half a century after those murders, Congo and his friends live comfortable lives, some even serve in government offices. It is absolutely infuriating to observe as these self-proclaimed gangsters candidly boast about their crimes, showing absolutely no signs of remorse for what they have done. Worst of all, the horrendous atrocities of their past have given them the unrivaled freedom that they enjoy today, as violence and fear rule the populace of Indonesia.
Oppenheimer takes advantage of the peacock-like prowess of Congo and his cronies, allowing for them to showboat in front of his unsuspecting camera. Next thing we know, these men begin to make a movie, playfully reenacting their infinitely immoral past. They are the writers, directors and actors of a series of elaborate re-enactments, cleverly referencing Hollywood musicals, gangster films and westerns, thus consciously reminding us of cinema’s shameful influence on these unflinchingly violent men. The Act of Killing is basically the creepiest behind-the-scenes, “making of” documentary ever made.
Refraining from directorial commentary, Oppenheimer takes the risk of possibly over-indulging the surreal impulses of these truly horrible yet eerily normal people. This seemingly unbiased technique allows Congo a lot of freedom to voice his own opinion, while the victims’ families remain voiceless. Congo’s constant bragging, however, opens him up for judgement and ridicule. He is like the mastermind criminal who proudly confesses to the jury — the audience — but is too blinded by unchecked arrogance to realize that he is actually being judged.